avatar
The 2008 Olympics: Subterranean Rot


Not since Marco Polo has anyone traveled so far up China‘s Silk Road with such amoral élan. But there was Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, knight of the court of King Leopold’s Belgium, three-time Olympian in the grand sport of yachting – standing astride Beijing at the close of the 2008 Olympic games. In front of a stunning 90,000 at the Games’ closing ceremony, he said, "Tonight, we come to the end of sixteen glorious days which we will cherish forever. Through these games, the world learned more about China, and China learned more about the world."

But what did the world really learn? From NBC’s ratings-rich coverage alone, not all that much. We learned that China is remarkably beautiful, Michael Phelps can really swim and Usain Bolt is truly quite fast. Oh, and there are pandas there. some of whom died in the Sichuan earthquake. We can’t forget about the pandas.

As the Washington Post’s veteran columnist Thomas Boswell wrote in his last missive from Beijing:

"In all my decades at The Post, this is the first event I’ve covered at which I was certain that the main point of the exercise was to co-opt the Western media, including NBC, with a splendidly pretty, sparsely attended, completely controlled sports event inside a quasi-military compound. We had little alternative but to be a conduit for happy-Olympics, progressive-China propaganda. I suspect it worked."

I applaud Boswell for his honesty, but it is hard to not have contempt for the aside that "we had little alternative" but to dance the infomercial shuffle.

Boswell and the press made a choice the moment they stepped on China‘s soil.

They chose not to seek out the near two million people evicted from their homes to make way for Olympic facilities.

They chose not to report on the Chinese citizens who tried to register to enter the cordoned off "protest zones" only to find themselves in police custody. (A shout out here to all who will find themselves shortly in similar "protest zones" in Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul.)

They chose not to report on the Tibetan citizens removed from their service jobs by state law for the duration of the games.

They chose not to ask what $42 billion, the price tag of the games, could have meant to earthquake ravaged Sichuan.

They chose to not point out the bizarre hypocrisy of seeing Michael Phelps–with full media fanfare–taking a group of Chinese children to their first meal at McDonalds. (Even though Phelps famously eats 12,000 calories a day during training, I can’t imagine much of it comes from Mickey D’s.)

They chose not to report on the foreign nationals who as of this writing, are still being held in Chinese prisons for daring to protest. (According to the Associated Press, the US Embassy pleaded with China to free protesters, gently suggested, that China could stand to show "greater tolerance and openness.")

They chose not to ask why George W. Bush was the first US president to attend the Olympics on foreign soil, and why the State Department last April took China off its list of nations that commit human rights violations.

They chose not to ask whether it was a conflict of interest for General Electric to both own NBC and be one of the primary sponsors of the games as well as the supplier of much of the games’ electronic security apparatus, including 300,000 close circuit cameras. All indications are that these cameras will most likely remain in place once the world has turned its attention elsewhere.

They chose not to ask and re-ask the question of why the games were in Beijing in the first place, considering that Rogge and Beijing organizing committee head Liu Qi both promised that the Olympics would come alongside significant improvements in human rights.

As Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch said:

"The reality is that the Chinese government’s hosting of the games has been a catalyst for abuses, leading to massive forced evictions, a surge in the arrest, detention and harassment of critics, repeated violations of media freedom, and increased political repression. Not a single world leader who attended the games or members of the IOC seized the opportunity to challenge the Chinese government’s behavior in any meaningful way."

The legacy of these games will be in no short order: China’s dominance, in winning more gold medals than the US; the aquatic dominance of Phelps; and the blistering triumph of Bolt and the Jamaican sprinters. But we should also remember the ravaging of a country, sacrificed at the altar of commercialism and "market penetration." And we should recall a mainstream press, derelict in its duty, telling us they had "little alternative" but to turn this shandeh into a globalization infomercial.

Liu Qi called the Olympics "a grand celebration of sport, of peace and friendship." Not quite. Instead it was a powerful demonstration of the way the elephants of the east and west can link trunks and happily trample the suffering grass.
England, you’re next. And you thought the blitzkrieg was rough.

First published at thenation.com

[Dave Zirin is the author of  the forthcoming "A People's History of Sports in the United States" (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]

Leave a comment